A spirituality of God’s Desire
Genesis states the truth from the beginning when it says that God created the world and that it was Good. God did not say that the material world is a reality lower than an immaterial “spiritual” world that we should set our sights on at the expense of the material world. God’s desire from the beginning is that all of creation should Be, and each and every one of us should Be. In willing us to be, God wills us all to have life and to have it abundantly. God wants me, myself, to have abundant life, but that does not mean that God wants just me, myself, and I to have abundant life. God wills abundant life for all. If some lack God’s abundant life, we all lack the abundance God wills for us.
When God shares God’s Being with us in creating us, God also shares God’s desire both for our own being and for the being of all that is in the world. This is mimetic desire as God intended it, the mimetic desire God built into creation. There is no rivalry whatever in the mimetic desire God invites us to share. The Incarnation of the Word seals God’s affirmation of the created world. Far from competing with the world, God entered the world as a specific human being. If the material world is good enough for God, it should be good enough for us.
In spite of these truths, “spirituality” is often presented as a discipline in competition with the material world, an attempt to overcome the world and the flesh along with the devil (who thereby tends to be equated with the flesh). This attitude plunges spirituality into mimetic rivalry with the world God created. That is not God’s desire. Girard’s understanding of mimetic desire suggests that genuine spirituality involves participating in God’s desire for creation. The Spirit of God who breathed over the waters at the dawn of creation breathes God’s desire through us. Letting God breathe God’s spirit through our embodied minds and wills is what spirituality is all about. Since Girard’s strong words about mimetic rivalry leave many with the impression that mimetic desire is the root of all evil, it is all the more important to affirm the role of mimetic desire in creation.
When mimetic desire is grounded in imitating God’s desire for each of us and for all creation, then mimetic desire is a positive force between humans. It means, for example, that we want to share the desire of creation with others. When Jesus fed the four and five thousand people, he demonstrated his desire that all should have abundance. Ideally, we should enculturate the young by initiating them into our desires grounded in God’s desire. We share our desire for spaghetti and meat sauce, for hot dogs at the ball park, for the beauty of music and the other arts, and for the beauty of sunsets, the greatest light shows on earth.
But all too easily, mimetic desire falls into rivalry and becomes a series of distortions of the world as created and desired by God. Eve and then Adam fell for the serpent’s lie that God was competing with human beings. Cain and Abel fought because they believed that only one sacrifice could be accepted. And so it has gone ever since. God planted the vineyard with the desire that its grapes grow rightly and gladden the hearts of all people. Mimetic desire causes wild grapes to grow in the vineyard and choke out the rest so that most people do without.
Mimetic desire should not be confused with biological desires, neither does it nullify or trump biological desire. We have a biological need for food and drink, a biological urge for sex, and we each have a mysterious and unique bundle of various likes and dislikes, talents, and a lack of talent. I would add that the urge for sex is much broader than genital sexual activity, that it is an urge to reach out to other people with affection. Inborn talents like musical ability and inborn lacks such as the inability to draw a straight line also seem to be grounded in our bodies with their unique genetic makeups. The immense variety of creatures in creation make it clear that God desires variety. The amazing variety of marine species in the Aquarium of the Americas is enough to make one dizzy. God’s desire for variety applies to people as well. If we all should start to live by God’s desire, we would not all be marching to the same tune, we would all be dancing to different tunes that, together, make up an incredible tapestry of sound and motion. Just think of the incredible variety of people who are listed among the saints!
Mimetic desire makes it impossible for human desire to be merely biological. A meal is an expression of human fellowship, sharing God’s desire for the food God has provided with others, or, a meal is a means of excluding others from fellowship. Sexual desire is not merely biological. It is about reaching out to other people in and, in certain relationships, sharing one’s body with another, or it is a thrust for power over others. When mimetic desire falls into mimetic rivalry, the distortions of biological and less tangible unique desires become seriously distorted. That we still have the natural resources to feed everybody in the world and yet millions of people are starving is a sure indication of this distortion. The packaging of good-looking people as sexual commodities inflates our natural sexual drive, as if the biological drive wasn’t strong enough without it! That power plays in sexual activity has become a big issue in sexual ethics involving two or more people with an uneven power deferential, such as that between a professional helper and a patient or client. In my experience, I have found that even gentle social pressure can, under some conditions, draw me into the tastes of other people at the expense of the tastes that come natural to me.
The distortions caused by mimetic rivalry blind us to the truth. Partisan politics is a prime example where accusatory lies are a routine strategy for defeating an opponent. The same holds true in the partisan politics that play out in artistic circles where excluding the legitimacy of other styles of art is as important as what an artist accomplishes. Composers of one musical school who cannot “hear” the music of a composer of a different school try to prevent other people from “hearing” that music either. Talk about having ears that cannot hear! When defeating an opponent is the most important thing, it becomes impossible to discern the right course of action that was ostensibly the matter of discussion. In such a scenario, we are preoccupied with our opponent. That means both the merits of all arguments and God’s desire underlying the arguments are forgotten. Increasing preoccupation with an opponent plunges mimetic rivalry down to a deeper that Girard calls “metaphysical rivalry.” At this abysmal level, each person attempts to take over the being of the other person. This is the ultimate distortion of God’s desire for both persons. Metaphysical mimetic rivalry is a direct inversion of God’s desire to give being to each of us so that we can give of our being to others in imitation of God’s desire for them.
Wise thinkers from many cultures have shown enough awareness of the distortions of mimetic desire to provide counsels of restraint and denial to counteract the violence that ensues from the escalation of mimetic rivalry. Several philosophies of the Greco-Roman world feature such counsels, with Stoicism perhaps having the greatest influence on early Christian writing. These philosophies have fostered a growing sense of personal responsibility, and their various attempts to curb desire have helped to keep society from drowning in mimetic crisis. But these philosophies tend to cause as many problems as they solve. Since desire is built into human nature by God, overly successful attempts at retraining desire are likely to suppress God’s desire working within us as much as they restrain distorted mimetic desires. The sense of personal responsibility fostered by these philosophies tends to make personal discipline individualistic to the extent that relationships with other people and the way other people are affected by our actions receives scant attention at best. Most seriously, the material world and the human body in particular are blamed for our distorted desires and the role of mimetic desire is seen dimly or not at all. When spirituality is construed primarily as imposing mastery over the body, there is a tendency to conceive of our whole life as an exertion of mastery over every aspect of life. We seek to master the things and animals in God’s creation along with other human beings. When the material world, and the body in particular, are scapegoated, spirituality becomes punitive.
A spirituality that is individualistic and punitive is bound to fuel mimetic rivalry. Acting in “mastery” mode inevitably makes us judgmental of others and undermines any solidarity we might otherwise feel for them. Such a spirituality tends to single out weaker individuals and social groups for censure while conveniently creating a smokescreen for the destruction power struggles inflict on society. A judgmental attitude leads us into a contest with others to reform them. Self-discipline and disciplining others necessarily become adversarial contests of will. The interlocking desires of those caught in contests such as those between parents and children or between spouses obscure God’s desire for each parent and child, spouse, or any other friend or associate. Addictions kindle mimetic rivalry between the addict and his or her enabler. The more the enabler nags the addict to stop drinking or stop gambling, the more the addict drinks or gambles. This deadlock is hardly ever broken until at least one of the parties withdraws from the contest and seeks treatment. It is instructive that an addict or an enabler gain healing by turning away from an opponent, surrender to a “higher power,” and join a community such as AA or Al-anon that gives mutual support.
A punitive spirituality also leads us to internalizes our mimetic rivalry with others. The nagging parent who nags from without nags from within to fuel the dysfunctional behavior the nagging is supposedly trying to stop. Preoccupation with the fantasies of lust, anger, and the noble desire to reform other people are ways we are infected with the mimetic desires of others. Worse, they give us convenient targets for blaming other people and our own bodies for what the mimetic dynamics fuel and intensify. The fantasy altercations that we play out in our minds distort reality even more than it is already. The rivalrous thrust of these fantasies becomes quite apparent when we take the time to realize that it just so happens that we come out on top of every person caught inside these fantasies. If the fantasy is anger, we tear that person to shreds. If a fantasy of somebody else is caught up in our sexuality, that person complies with everything we dream about. If we fantasize about the way we are going reform another person’s life, we come up with exactly the right words to turn that person to our way of thinking. Everybody in our fantasies become extensions of ourselves. How convenient! But how far from God!
We have a probing illustration of the way mimetic rivalry clouds reality at all levels in the movie “Doubt.” Sister Aloysius falls into mimetic rivalry with Fr. Flynn, the pastor of the parish she and her fellow nuns serve, when she convinces herself that Fr. Flynn is acting “improperly” with Donald Miller, the one Afro-American boy in the school. She draws the young and idealistic Sister James into this mimetic rivalry although Sister James struggles against it as much as she is tempted by it. In a key line, Sister James articulates the spiritual damage caused by this mimetic rivalry when she says: “It is unsettling to look at people with suspicion. I feel less close to God.” Sister Aloysius acknowledges the problem, but accepts what she believes is a self-sacrifice when she replies: “When you take a step to address wrongdoing, you are taking a step away from God, but in his service.” Perhaps in her mind, Sister Aloysius is acting out of concern for the boy she thought was being abused, but at no time in the movie does she show any direct concern for Donald Miller. Neither does Sister James. They both fail to see the boy caught in the middle. The look on Donald’s face when Fr. Flynn tells the congregation that he is leaving makes it clear that he is a victim, regardless of what really did or did not happen. The movie purposely does not resolve the question of the truth of Sister Aloysius’ suspicions. The mimetic rivalry between the characters has blocked access to the truth.
The Gospels, the passion and Resurrection narratives in particular, give us a powerful sense of direction in which the Spirit desires to breathe through us. They show Jesus, both in his actions and his teachings, centered on the heavenly Father in the midst of the swirl of the mimetic tensions surrounding him. Girard has demonstrated how the Passion narratives reveal the truth of collective violence rooted in the primitive sacred. They bring to light the end result of a societal mimetic crisis such as the one that erupted at Passover time when Jesus came to Jerusalem. Jesus could have asked for legions of angels to protect him from Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate, but he did not do that because that was not God’s desire. Neither was it God’s desire that Jesus’ persecutors be persecuted by the Risen Christ. What God desired was that Jesus breathe the Holy Spirit into all who would allow Him to so that they, too, could breathe God’s desire into them. Unfortunately, not even this supreme revelation of God’s desire has been able to prevent serious intensifications of individualistic and punitive spirituality in the name of Christ.
In an important lecture given at Ghost Ranch, Michel Serres argued that St. Paul discovered the human self by responding to the question of the Risen Christ: “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” What is important here is that Paul’s discovery (not invention!) of the self stems from penitence, a turning away from the punitive spirituality that had motivated him to persecute followers of a newfangled religion. This is in contrast to the individualism I talked about in connection with ascetical disciplines that tend to be punitive. Paul’s individualism was so strong that he took pride in his “blameless” observance of Torah. A true individual in the Pauline sense, then, is not an individualist, but a person open to God’s desire. It has suggested in mimetic theory that the first differentiation among humans is the singling out of the victim in collective violence. The Gospels and St. Paul demonstrate that one becomes an individual by making a decision based on the revealed truth of the victim. One becomes an individual through concern for someone other than ourselves. As Matthew 25 tells us, whatever we do for the least of the world’s victims, we do for Christ himself. Individualism is a distortion rooted in mimetic rivalry of the Gospel’s revelation of the human individual. It is this distortion that has led to the self-assertive individualism that runs Western Civilization today.
The Gospels’ unveiling of the truth about the victimage mechanism caused by mimetic crises has brought about an increased sympathy for victims over the past two thousand years. Much Christian devotion centered on the Passion expresses sympathy for Christ as victim and also for Mary as secondary victim as in the famous Stabat Mater. Many Christmas carols express sympathy for suffering of the Christ Child as a foreshadowing the suffering of the Passion. Thanks to the power of Matthew 25, many people also see Christ in the poor, the sick, and the social outcasts. Hospitals, it so happens, are a Christian invention motivated by this awareness of God’s desire for the healing of other people. But the vengefulness that mimetic rivalry has made habitual makes it all too easy for us to turn this sympathy into rage against those who inflicted the injury. This has led to virulent anti-Semitism on the part of Christians. This vengeful sympathy for victims also warps many moral crusades that otherwise do much good as the example of Sister Aloysius warns us. It is understandable when victims have difficulty reaching a point where they can forgive those who have wronged them, but when their advocates are just as implacably unforgiving, they obstruct healing for everybody concerned.
A punitive doctrine of the Atonement causes still more subtle and serious problems. I don’t think that Saint Anselm’s atonement theology was punitive, but much church teaching has pushed his thought in that direction. Such a theology presupposes that God desires punishment. It suggests that Jesus was punished by God, not in the sense that Jesus deserved it, but because all human beings deserve to be punished, somebody has to be punished in order to re-establish justice, it doesn’t matter who is punished as long as somebody is punished, and Jesus graciously submitted to the punishment in our place. But that is not the case. God wants us to desire the created world as God desires it. The mimetic rivalry into which humanity has fallen causes much suffering and is its own punishment. There is much pain involved in withdrawing from mimetic rivalry and re-embracing God’s desire. But none of this means that punishment is an intrinsic good. Unfortunately, a punitive doctrine of the Atonement embraces punishment as an intrinsic good, with the result that many people are punished in many ways. The “logic” is that if God punished Jesus for what we did, then we all deserve as much punishment as we can possibly inflict on ourselves and others. Spirituality is redirected, actually, misdirected to make sure that happens.
But if we turn to an Atonement theology that denies that God positively willed Jesus’ suffering as a punishment, and only accepted it as a human necessity arising out of the mimetic crisis in his time, then we can see that a spirituality grounded in God’s desire will never seek suffering for its own sake. We must hold fast to the principle that if God did not positively wish for Jesus to be tortured and killed for the purpose of redeeming humanity, then God does not wish that for us either. The outcome of Jesus’s life does show that loving creation and the people in it as God loves them in it in a world filled with mimetic contagion can and does have painful, even terrible, consequences. Being faithful to God’s desire can lead us to similar suffering. In both cases, it is fidelity to God’s desire that God wishes of us, not the suffering, but this fidelity may make suffering inevitable in some cases.
A punitive spirituality teaches that spiritual growth begins with purgation. We purge ourselves of our sins and our attachments to anything in this world so as to be worthy of entering God’s presence. All temptations and distractions from God must be chopped away. Such a punitive spirituality re-enacts Goethe’s famous story of the sorcerer’s apprentice. When the apprentice can’t stop the broom he enchanted from bringing more water than he needs, he chops the broom in half. This leaves him with two brooms that bring in twice as much water! What an apt image for mimetic mirroring! In Disney’s cartoon version to the famous tone poem by Dukas, Mickey Mouse as the sorcerer’s apprentice chops broom after broom in half so that the brooms flood the sorcerer’s palace: a full-blown mimetic crisis! When we try to purge ourselves by chopping at temptations, we only multiply them until we are overwhelmed and we drown.
Mimetic theory teaches us that what we need to be purged of is rivalrous mimetic desire. and that it takes God’s desire within us to move us away from them. Since we cannot function at all without mimetic desire, we must be moved either by the desire of others or of the Other. This is why the sorcerer’s apprentice technique fails so badly. Fortunately, God does not wait for us to purify ourselves before entering an immaculate temple in our hearts. If that were so, we would be left as orphans, bereft of mimetic desire. As God’s fills us with God’s desire, God withdraws us from mimetic contagion. In the process, we will suffer withdrawal symptoms as the props the contagion gave us are removed. This suffering is not punitive, but it is the natural result of letting go of the false self created by mimetic contagion so that it can be recreated by God. We enter what St. John of the Cross called “the night of the senses,” an inner space that feels like a no man’s land because the self shaped by mimetic desire fades while God’s desire is only beginning to bear fruit within us. We must be patient and learn to trust that God’s Desire truly is non-competitive. Most importantly, God’s Desire precludes all things in the world from being competitors with God. In one of the parables with which Anthony De Mello peppered his books, a concertgoer says to a friend” “The music filled the auditorium,” to which the friend asked “then was there no room for the musicians and the audience?”
A spirituality of God’s desire does not isolate us from the toxic collective of humans. Rather, it plunges us, with God, into this collective so that we can participate in God’s forming the Body of Christ, the Body of the forgiving victim, with us and with all of the people we fight against in our fantasies. Jesus’ admonition to leave father, mother, brother and sister to follow him is coupled with the promise that we will have many mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters, along with persecutions. Sometimes it is necessary to withdraw from the mimetic dynamics within a family and that family’s relationships, but surely we hope to find our families and friends once again in Christ’s Body as we come to participate in God’s desires for them. We really need to get over the notion that our family and friends are necessarily competitors with God for our time and attention. God does not compete with them. Why should we put them in competition with God?
Now that I have outlined the basic thrust of a spirituality grounded in God’s desire, the question is: What should we do?
To begin with, we must practice humility. Humility is a fundamental virtue that is often distorted by a mimetic distortions that encourage us equate humility with being a “loser.” But being ground into dust is not what humility is about. St. Benedict says that the first stage of humility is “to keep the fear of God before our eyes and never forget it.” Fear does mean quaking in our boots because we’ve messed up. This is fear in the sense of respect and awe. God is truly and totally awesome, and God’s love most of all! This step of humility means that we must live mindfully in God’s presence so that we can open ourselves to God’s desire. This habit of remembering God allows God to be the mediator between ourselves and everything and everybody in creation. This habit delivers us from being overwhelmed by the multiple brooms that flood our consciousness. Just as only the returning sorcerer, acting as a deus ex machina, could put an end to the spell recklessly cast by the errant apprentice, so only God can redirect the mimetic desires that enchant us back to God’s desire. Mimetic rivalry puts us directly against another person, making that person the mediator between ourselves and all else. But when we live in God’s presence, God’s desires for that person have room in our hearts. Living in God’s presence requires the discipline of vigilance. Vigilance is an alert state of being consciously aware of what we are actually doing with our lives. Vigilance would have us note when we are in danger of falling into mimetic rivalry so that we can turn back to the remembrance of God. This is not a matter of driving away any thought of people and things that tempt us to rivalrous desire. Rather, it is a discipline of living with the people and things that infect us in the presence of God so that God’s desire of the relationship between us and other people and things can grow.
We should prayerfully read together the Word of God given to us in scripture and reflect on it deeply in our hearts. Even when we read the scriptures alone, we can read them and pray them in connection with others in Christ’s Body. Scripture can only guide us in the ways of God’s desire for both ourselves and other people if we read it with other people. The question we need to constantly ask as we ponder God’s Word is: What is God’s desire that is being revealed to us? We must constantly keep this question before us as the scriptures also show us how human desires are alienated from God’s desire by the contagion of mimetic rivalry.
Praying together in word and song is a powerful mimetic act by which God builds up the Body of Christ. We can only pray and sing together effectively if we are open to one another to the extent of entering into each other. This is how we develop the sense that allows us to keep together in our words and in our song. It is important, however, to be guided by the scriptural content of liturgy so that this mimetic process moves us in the right direction. After all, the Ku Klux Klan has its liturgy just as much as the Church does, as the movie Brother, Where art Thou? illustrates. The Psalter is of great importance in worship because it is so comprehensive in its scope. When we pray the psalms, we pray with and for those who are rejoicing as well as with those who are in despair, and most importantly with those who are persecuted. St. Augustine, in his sermons on the psalms, argued that the psalms are the prayer of Christ expressed through the Body of Christ. The psalms of persecution, then, give voice to the persecution of Christ, but they also give voice to members of Christ’s Body who are also persecuted. In this way, we are united with Christ and to all others Christ is gathering into His Body.
The Eucharist is an act of worship where God specifically and literally shares God’s Being with us in the bread and wine. Sadly, in what is called the sacrament of unity, there has been much mimetic rivalry over how the presence and activity of Christ is to be understood in the Eucharist. It came as a bit of a shock when I realized most theologies of the Eucharist seek to point to the mystery of God’s sharing both the life Jesus gave up on the cross the life of the Risen Christ when we receive the bread and wine. In mimetic terms, God allows us to absorb God’s being when we consume the bread and wine while the body absorbs the same bread and wine. It is the essence of the Eucharist that Christ’s Body is given and received in Christ’s Body, the Church. An altar, the instrument of bloody sacrifice is used with the conspicuous absence of blood as a reminder of the real blood that was shed when Jesus went to Jerusalem and as a reminder of the blood that is still shed today. The assembly that gathered to kill the victim now gathers to bring all victims into Christ’s Body. It is also worth noting that Quakers, who do not accept the sacraments at all, have a strong belief in God’s transforming power experienced in waiting on God in a silent assembly.
Waiting on God in silence is a practice where God transforms our entangled mimetic desires into God’s desire through an ineffable Gift of God’s Being, an experience witnessed to by the numerous mystics of the Church. Paul prays for all of us to receive what he has received from God when he prays that, with Christ dwelling in their hearts by faith and rooted in love, we “may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God.” Lest one complain that mystical prayer is elitist, intended only for a few, let us remember that Paul was writing to ordinary people like us about God’s desire for all of us. We do not have to be spiritual acrobats to be mystics in this way. God does the acrobatics within us. This sharing in God’s being is the end result of placing ourselves in God’s presence day after day, hour by hour, minute after minute.
Much theology inspired by Christian mysticism speaks of what is called “the negative way.” Since the intellect cannot possibly comprehend the terms we apply to God as they apply to God, we speak primarily of what God is not. We must remember, though, that negative theology does presuppose positive theology, and most importantly, the assertion that God is love. Negative theology is not really an intellectual matter, but a matter of spirituality, a matter of desire. Mimetic theory suggests that insofar as we are engulfed by the infections of mimetic rivalry, it is difficult and even impossible to comprehend what God’s desire really is. Perhaps the “dark cloud of unknowing” between ourselves and God that an English medieval writer wrote about is the clouding of mimetic rivalry. As long as we are engulfed by this cloud, all we can do is beat upon it with the “darts of love” until God clears the cloud for us and reveals the dazzling light of God.
Mimetic theory sheds some light, I think, on the cryptic fourth stage of love in Bernard of Clairvaux’s treatise On the Love of God. The first three stages are understandable enough: 1) I love myself for own sake; 2) I love God for my sake; 3) I love God for God’s sake. But the fourth stage is: (brace yourself) 4) To love myself for God’s sake. What I think Bernard is getting at is that in this stage, we are consumed with God’s desire for us. This is what Saint Athanasius envisioned when he said the God became human, that humanity might become God. The second Epistle of Peter goes so far as to say that God’s promises are meant to help us “escape the corruption that is in our world of lust and become participants in the divine nature.” In John’s Gospel, Jesus promises us that when we ask anything of God in His name, it will be granted to us. We ask in Jesus’ Name when the Son and the Spirit dwell within us as they dwell in the Father so that we desire what the Son and the Spirit desire in harmony with what the Father desires.
Prayer and liturgy send our hearts out to the people around us who need our acts of service. Jesus said that anyone who gives a cup of cold water to the least of His little ones has given it to Him. It is acts of service that focus our attention on other people and their needs, not what we think their needs are. Fundamentally, our acts of service must be grounded in the first step of humility; living constantly in the presence of God. Listening deeply to another person so that the truth of that person can be revealed is a way of overcoming mimetic rivalry with others. The trick here is to listen to another with God’s ears so that we participate in God’s listening to that person. It is acts of service grounded in listening to God as we listen to each other that builds up the Body of Christ. Girard has discussed at length the chain reaction of mimetic crises that lead to a meltdown of society where catastrophe is only averted by collective violence. What God desires is a mimetic chain reaction that moves in the opposite direction. This is a chain reaction of sharing God’s desire with each other that does not come to an end until there are no more victims because there are no more victimizers.
The story of the Transfiguration of Jesus on Mount Tabor gives us a useful review of what we are reflecting on. Luke gives us the detail that Jesus goes up mountain to pray, and that it was while praying that Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James, and John. The Transfiguration is a powerful image of God’s desire to transfigure all of us with God’s desires. Mark then tells us that afterwards, when Jesus came down from mountain, he found the disciples arguing with the scribes, and that they had failed to exorcize a demon from boy. The suggestion is that the arguing caused the disciples to fail in their ministry. Jesus exorcizes the demon and tells his disciples that such an exorcism can only be done with prayer. Next thing we know, the disciples are arguing about who is the greatest. We can’t stay on mountaintop anymore than the disciples could, as much as Peter wanted to build three booths and do just that. We live our lives below the mountain where mimetic rivalry swarms around us furiously, where people need the transfiguring light that God offers each of us so that we can give it as freely as it has been given to us.
These ideas are discussed at length in my book Tools for Peace.